American workers have decided it’s time for a change — a decision at least partly brought on by a more than year-long pandemic that shifted the way many understood the norms of work life.
The result appears to be a massive wave of job changes. About 4 million people quit their jobs in April alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s the highest quit level since the agency began publishing these rates in December 2000.
Retail workers quit more than people in any other industry, according to the bureau, followed by those in professional and business services. Those categories saw a combined 200,000 more employees leave their jobs in April than in the previous month.
The record figures in April reflect what has been happening to some degree for months, as both anecdotal evidence and data suggest people are looking to do something different now than they did before the pandemic.
For many, the crisis was a “wake-up call,” Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, told The Washington Post in an email. Before the pandemic, many workers may already have been struggling to balance work and family obligations, or they might have been unhappy in their jobs.
The pandemic may also have given people an opportunity for self-reflection.
“A lot of it comes down to how the pandemic has probably affected people’s personal values and identity in some ways, kind of on a deeper level,” said Kristen Jennings Black, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who studies employee health and well-being.
Then there’s the massive shift to remote work.
“Once we figured out we can work from home, many of us pretty effectively, it was just the question of, ‘Well, why would I go back?,’ ” Black said.
The Washington Post talked to six people who quit their jobs during the pandemic to ask: Why the big change?
Emily Jump, 25
The pandemic had barely begun when Emily Jump joined a cosmetic dentistry business, where clients continued to ask for teeth whitening and veneers after mandates forced smiles behind face coverings.
In that time of widespread mask-wearing, Jump said she found herself fixated on reading people’s emotions through their eyes. So she started researching microblading and permanent makeup — and realized what she was meant to do.
As a freelance makeup artist, Jump said starting her own business had long been a pipe dream.
“There was always something in my mind that was stopping me from feeling like it was realistic,” she said. “But I think the pandemic helped me realize that maybe life is too short to think about something instead of just doing it.”
When she wasn’t working a dentistry shift, Jump attended microblading training. She developed a business plan, registered her company with her county and built a website. Crucially, she also saved as much money as she could from her paychecks and threw it at her new endeavor.
Jump’s business launched in March. She said she did microblading for models in exchange for their help getting the word out. Jump knew she was taking a huge financial risk, but she felt confident that she could make her new venture successful.
Then she woke up one day and realized she was booked out for a month and a half. It was time to quit the dentist’s office. Her last day is Saturday.
Jump said she’s now the happiest she’s ever been.
And she named her business after her childhood dog: Columbus Cosmetic Ink, or Coco for short.
Vladi Kuschnerov, 37
Before he gave his notice in June 2020, Vladi Kuschnerov had been in the digital marketing technology industry for about two decades, working his way up to a role as chief operating officer at a firm he left in October.
He had wanted to start his own business for years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that he finally took that leap.
“These thoughts didn’t start in the pandemic, but they intensified in the pandemic,” he told The Post. “I always wanted to give back to the community with a mission-driven kind of vision, but as corporate life cycles go, you’re always pursuing the next thing, the next promotion.”
That grind, he said, can take a mental and physical toll that is sometimes drowned out by the positive effects of being in an office environment you enjoy, including building relationships.
“While we were working remotely, all of these positive things in the workplace that you have around you, a lot of them were stripped away,” he said.
That change also gave him a chance to ask himself: “Does our field or our job add value to the community? Do we give back to the community?”
He left to launch his own start-up called the Vault, which Kuschnerov described as a “digital safe-deposit box.” It’s a platform he hopes will help provide banking access to some of the millions of unbanked individuals in the United States.
He said he has no regrets about the decision, even though launching a new platform has been a “completely different challenge.”
“The pandemic has shown us there is no line between” people’s lives and their work, he said.
“They will merge and merge, more and more together, and I think the best way to enjoy and have fulfillment in your life is to find something that fulfills you in your work as well as your personal life,” he said.
Alison Oles, 62
At the start of the pandemic, Alison Oles left her job as an executive assistant to a financial adviser to help protect her husband, who was at high risk for severe complications from covid-19. She said she had planned to go back, but the selfishness and incivility she witnessed from people over the next year made her reevaluate how she wanted to spend her time when life returned to some semblance of normal.
“It wasn’t my job; it was covid,” she said, explaining her mind-set.
“When you’re stuck at home, you have time to reexamine your life and your choices,” she added.
Oles said she was dismayed seeing people who refused to wear masks correctly, or at all, or to respect social distancing guidelines.
“You didn’t wear the masks for you; you wore the masks to protect your neighbor,” she said. “And they decided that their freedom and liberty was more important than other people’s health and safety. I think that’s terrible.”
With that behavior in mind, Oles said the thought of returning to work, where her job consisted largely of providing customer service, was “untenable.” Not to mention that she would have had to relearn her job — getting to know new clients and learning laws and regulations that had been implemented during the months she was gone.
So Oles decided to retire.
Now, she said, she is just “waiting for everything to open back up so I can start my life again.”
Claire Barnett, 41
Like many people wading through the pandemic, Claire Barnett had started to think more about her priorities.
Barnett, a Democrat, had been burning the midnight oil, working full time as a federal government consultant while also running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. But once the coronavirus hit, the wife and mother of two was quarantining at home, helping her young children with online coursework and thinking about their futures.
“Where do I want to spend my time? What’s most important? And when I look forward to my kids’ future, what kind of world do I want to leave them with?” she said. So, she said, she decided to reprioritize her time and energy to set them up for a better life — and most importantly, to be a bigger part of it.
“Where do I feel like my energies can best serve the future of my state, my kids, our country?” she said.
Barnett said the pandemic gave her the push to do something she and a friend had been discussing for some time. The two wanted to start an organization to help support Democratic candidates in traditionally Republican districts in Texas, by building an infrastructure that would help them make a difference and eventually win more elections. The idea had come, at least in part, from Barnett’s run for state House District 122 in 2018. She lost. After a second loss in 2020 and a deadly virus sweeping the globe, she quit her job as a consultant and is now putting those plans into motion.
Barnett said the flexibility to create her own schedule will allow her to spend more time with her children.
“During the pandemic, I think a lot of us have gotten to see our kids more. We’ve gotten to learn who they are in ways that we didn’t before,” she said.
And she said she was fortunate “to be able to make the conscious decision that I don’t want to lose all of that.”
Molly Anderson, 37
Forsyth County, Ga.
The pressure to log long hours at her law firm had been bothering Molly Anderson for a while. But when the pandemic hit, something in her finally snapped.
First, she said, it was her managers’ insistence in the spring of 2020 that she return to her office, despite her worry about passing the coronavirus to her then 3-year-old son, who had enhanced medical needs. Her mother-in-law was coming to live with her. Then it was her uncertainty about whether her daughter would attend kindergarten in person and, if not, who would look after her. Anderson’s burnout at work compounded all of that.
She said she had been at her small, collegial firm for about seven years, and she enjoyed working on civil litigation. But she didn’t feel that she could keep up with a system that required her to log as many billable hours as possible to prove her worth while taking care of her children, who were suddenly home all the time. Anderson said she was also trying to pay extra attention to her kids because they were struggling with being separated from their friends from day care and preschool.
“Everything just came to a head,” Anderson said. “These were all issues that I feel like were present previous to March of 2020, but it was at a point where I had to make some decisions for my health and my family’s health.”
Financially buoyed by the pause on federal student loan payments, Anderson quit her job and launched her own firm. She began her new job virtually, designed her own schedule and got rid of the billable-hours pay structure that used to stress her. Building a client base has been difficult, but Anderson said she stands by her decision.
“This allowed me to give myself permission to take care of my family,” she said.
John Patterson, 65
When the coronavirus started sweeping through senior-living facilities, John Patterson got nervous.
The then 64-year-old, who has atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure, had spent the past 17 years handling building maintenance for a high-rise apartment complex for senior citizens in Michigan. But with health issues that put him at high risk for severe complications from covid-19 and a massive global shortage of personal protective equipment, Patterson said he was “scared to death.”
“You know at the old country fair where you used to get the BB gun and shoot the tin ducks and win a prize? I felt like one of those tin ducks,” he said. “But every morning I would suck it up and do the best I could.”
Early on, Patterson was deemed an essential worker, meaning that when the rest of the nation was shut down, he was at work — fixing leaky faucets, unclogging toilets and shoveling snow. He was also responsible for cleaning and sanitizing the building, he said.
He said because his employer could not get masks, he pulled out a box of 10 N95 masks that a supplier had previously sent him by mistake. He kept one and gave the rest to his colleagues.
“I had seen on the news where there was a nurse up here in Michigan saying she had an N95 and at the end of the day, she would put it in a paper bag and keep it for the next day. So I started doing that,” he said.
That was in late February.
Although uneasy, Patterson said he continued to work until spring, when his employer decided to go about business as usual and start filling vacancies, despite the pandemic.
“That was the last straw,” Patterson said. In May 2020 he quit, tossing his three-month-old mask in the trash can on his way out the door. He has been living on his retirement fund and personal savings, he said.
Patterson said he is fully vaccinated and, after his next cardiac exam, plans to visit a sister in Florida. Then, he said, he is going to start searching for another job.